Wrong Command Cuts Ties with Voyager 2, But It’s Still Sending Data Back to Earth

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NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) — the agency’s massive collection of antennas that connect the agency with its long-distance space probes — has successfully detected a carrier signal from the Voyager 2 spacecraft, days after an inadvertent command led to a total loss of communication with the legendary spacecraft hurtling in interstellar space. The reawakening came as scientists scrambled to understand what caused the probe’s antenna to deviate by a mere 2 degrees from Earth’s direction, effectively cutting off its ability to send data or receive commands.

Using the DSN, engineers at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California could detect the spacecraft’s “heartbeat” carrier signal, a kind of lifeline confirming the spacecraft is still broadcasting. The signal is too weak to extract substantial data, but the detection shows that Voyager 2 is still functioning correctly and continuing along its expected trajectory.

Voyager 2 has been in interstellar space since November 5, when it crossed the boundary that separates the Solar System’s heliosphere from the cooler, higher-density plasma of interstellar space. That milestone was marked by a dramatic jump in plasma density recorded by the Iowa-led Voyager 2’s plasma wave instrument and confirmed with other observations by its other instruments.

As the spacecraft continues deeper into interstellar space, its power will wane. Eventually, researchers will have to turn off some of its components to extend its operational life. However, even at its current astronomical distance from Earth, the spacecraft has extended its battery life longer than the original four-year design mission. It is still expected to send data back to Earth for another five to 10 years. It could be operating longer if engineers can reestablish communications sooner rather than later.

A spokesperson for JPL told ABC News that the team is attempting to reestablish communication with Voyager 2 but that it will likely be “a while” before that happens, as it will take more than 18 hours for the information to travel from the probe to Earth when its antenna is pointed in a different direction from its Earth-pointing orientation. The team will fire commands to reset the spacecraft’s orientation several times before October when scheduled for a self-reset that will automatically reorient its antenna toward Earth.

Voyager 2 and its twin sister, Voyager 1, are the farthest artificial objects ever to reach beyond our solar system. Their journeys have allowed them to take unprecedented snapshots of the outermost planets and the Milky Way galaxy and to carry a Golden Record containing encoded images and sounds, including the “Earth song” performed by dozens of artists. The records are expected to play for a billion years or more. Both spacecraft are expected to reach the edge of the Milky Way sometime after 2025, where they will leave the solar system forever to roam the galaxy in interstellar silence. The Voyagers will likely run out of fuel long before that and may wander the Milky Way for eternity.

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